Houston’s Most Unique Coffee Shops: 5 Spots Any Caffeine Fiend Must VisitBY Annie Gallay // 02.19.18
Southside is known for funky latte flavors like sweet potato. (Photo by Faith Nguyen, @faithnguyen.)
Southside Espresso is roaster-owned and operated. Sean Marshall runs Fusion Coffee Beans.
On top of coffee, Southside offers beer, wine, and flatbreads.
Siphon offers a siphon for two.
The siphon method dates back 200 years.
Siphon commissioned a mural to give their patio a Montrose vibe.
Antidote's founders also own Black Hole, Little Dipper, and Poison Girl.
Antidote's a colorful place and popular spot for crafts vendors.
Antidote cools things off with a cold brew.
Blacksmith is located in the building of the former iconic Montrose bar Mary's.
Blacksmith is inspired by Australia's strong coffee culture.
Blacksmith is known for its quality and hospitality.
Agora walked through the fire and came out the other side.
Greek for gathering space, Agora welcomes people from all over to come and chat.
It’s time to wake up and seek out the coffee. In the last five or so years, coffee shops have sprung up all over Houston. The coffee spots share a common goal — keeping citizens caffeinated. That’s not to say they’re all the same. Houston Coffee Shops, especially in Montrose and The Heights, have carved out their coffee niche through unique flavors, compelling brewing methods, commitment to the community and more.
These are Houston’s must-visit coffee shops. Their brews are good enough to turn any night owl into a morning person.
Rough morning? Long day ahead? Caffeine withdrawal? Antidote has the cure for what ails you. The striking name for the unpretentious Studewood spot serves as a counterpoint to one of the owners’ other businesses: Poison Girl.
Sure, the name rolls off the tongue, but there’s also some undeniable real world application. Sometimes the owners will see regulars roll up to the whisky-heavy Montrose dive bar Poison Girl late at night and come into Antidote the very next morning for a restorative cup of joe.
They may go for the Cajeta Latte, an Antidote essential. The nutty drink is made of its namesake Cajeta, a goat’s milk caramel. The result is a rich, bold latte that’s not too sweet. Think of it as a sophisticated, mature Mocha.
Antidote trends “more toward bitter, traditional coffee,” co-owner Scott Repass tells PaperCity.
“I like it. I’m bitter… we like our coffee like we like our customers,” he laughs. Repass is one fourth of the team, along with his wife Dawn Callaway and their friends, couple Scott Walcott and Miriam Carrillo.
Together, they own Antidote, Poison Girl, Little Dipper Bar, and Black Hole Coffee House. They also all serve roles at OKRA Charity Saloon.
The quartet founded Antidote 10 years ago, after Callaway became pregnant. “We knew pretty quickly we couldn’t hang out at Poison Girl,” Repass says. At the time, there weren’t really coffee options in The Heights, “which now seems bizarre.”
Antidote sources all of its coffee from Big Bend Coffee Roasters out in Marfa. Big Bend owner Joe Williams checks out all of the fair trade and organic beans from cooperatives he’s visited himself.
Williams teamed up with Antidote to support the community in Hurricane Harvey’s aftermath. When the coffee shop couldn’t get coffee delivered for two weeks, Williams arranged for a 12-foot covered trailer filled to the brim with coffee and got it to Houston. With it, Antidote opened its doors and gave out free coffee.
After the coffee delivery, Williams lent the truck out for another month so that Repass’ friends could deliver items to Harvey victims.
“Hurricanes have kind of defined us,” Repass says. When Hurricane Ike hit, the power went out in the neighborhood. All of their fridges were down, so they started giving everything away. Repass stayed for 12 hours that first day. They ran off of borrowed generators for the next two-and-a-half weeks and showed movies out front on projectors, like Airplane and the original Muppet movie.
“You have to be part of the community you’re trying to serve,” Repass says.
You won’t find a Pumpkin Spice Latte at Southside Espresso once the leaves start to change. Well, at least to the extent they do in Houston. Instead, our faux fall inspires something a little more daring. Southside serves up a distinctive Sweet Potato Latte.
Another one for the adventurous: Early Gray Clove.
“Lavender also goes really well in mochas,” owner Sean Marshall says. “I take my inspiration from flavors from local fare that I find, and seasonal ingredients.”
Southside stands out from the pack because it’s roaster-owned and operated. Marshall fronts Fusion Beans, founded back in 2007. Before it became official, Marshall roasted independently and brought his two-headed sample roaster to farmers markets.
From there, it was one whole sale account at the time. Fusion bean coffee is now served at Melange Creperie, Tiny Boxwoods and more. Offbeat brewery Brash even uses Fusion coffee beans in its Cortado Imperial Stout.
Building his coffee brand, Marshall says he picked “coffees that I like to balance out the list. It’s kind of like building a wine list.”
The roaster co-founded a mill in Yemen six years ago. It makes the lightest coffee Southside has, and one of the most fruit-forward.
“If I was going to mark myself, I’m kind of medium to medium light on a broad spectrum,” Marshall says.
Southside serves a couple pizzas from its small brick oven. It does not have a complete kitchen. It offers wine to go with the pizzas as well as the coffees.
“Fortified wine pairs really well with espresso,” Marshall says.
Southside also has eight beers on tap, along with a pretty good bottle and can selection.
“It’s very Montrose, I try to keep it very Montrose,” Marshall says.
Step one was keeping the rafters from the building’s former tenant, the Felix Mexican restaurant. Marshall even had an artist retouch the paint from water damage. The artist incorporated Southside’s six-leaf magnolia logo into the rafters’ pattern.
Greek for “gathering place,” Agora is a cozy, old-world Montrose hangout that draws crowds of all ages from all over. The spot is largely wood, decorated with replicas of classic antiquities. The walls sport masks of famed heroes and philosophers, and black and ochre plates depicting great battles.
It may pay homage to owner Petros Vamvakas’ home country, but Agora is anything but all Greek to him. Agora counts patrons as varied as Lamar High School students and Houstonians by way of Europe and the Middle East.
“You can hear 10 languages if you sit here long enough,” Vamavkas says, “a different language at every table.” The warm, two-story house opened in 2001, and countless customers have treated the coffee spot as a second home.
“A lot of people have literally grown up here — they were raised here,” Vamvakas says. “People will come back and say ‘I finished my PhD here.’ ”
A large part of the enduring appeal: Agora opened its doors in the age before public Wi-Fi was standard and iPhones were ubiquitous. It’s safe to say nothing has changed in the coffee mecca — and its loyal customers wouldn’t have it any other way. Agora was designed as a place to talk, first and foremost.
You won’t find indie playlists over the speaker system. The old-school jukebox, still around today, will give you Joni Mitchell hits or classic Greek compositions by Mikis Theodorakis for a dollar.
The coffee spot is a testament to timelessness. Case in point: Agora walked through the fire, literally. It came out almost unchanged. On Halloween night 2010, a devastating fire at the antique store next door spread down the block.
It was midnight, and Agora was full of guests sipping on Freddo espressos and enjoying international wines.
“We were able to get every single person out of here safely,” Vamvakas says. But the fire “took a little part of the balcony, then it took the roof. Then it was over.”
Vamvakas rebuilt his gathering place in its original image. Much of the art came out blackened and smoke-stained, so Vamvakas flew to Greece to pick up some more. Agora stayed true to its roots.
“It’s a place where people feel safe,” Vamvakas says.
701 W. Alabama
The coffee mavens at Siphon Coffee are “basically waking up the city,” general manager Norma Odegard claims. They’re perking it up with caffeine, but they’re also waking it up to an old school brewing method that may be brand new to them.
Siphon is bringing siphon coffee into the 21st century. The unique method’s been around for about 200 years. The funky practice calls for a halogen lamp to heat the water. The resulting slow brew style is similar to how you would steep tea.
“It makes it very tea-like in the body of the coffee,” Odegard says. “It’s very flavorful.” In addition to that kicky throwback, Siphon use more standard methods to achieve drip coffee, espresso-based drinks, and cold brew.
The coffee shop’s espresso is always Amaya beans, and their cold brew is always Boomtown. There’s freedom with the other methods. Odegard considers Siphon a “feature roaster cafe” with rotating bean sources.
“We call it ‘Si-fun’,” Odegard notes. “We like to have fun. At the same time, “we’re fiercely passionate about our coffee and our food programs. Because of our different brew methods, it forces us to be knowledgeable about coffee.”
Siphon offers an extensive menu, featuring food from morning to night, from breakfast tacos to a Mexican caprese sandwich with Oaxaca cheese. It’s a locavore’s paradise.
“We use as many Texas products as we can,” Odegard says.
Siphon receives fresh produce and bread deliveries every day. All of its eggs come from hens raised at Vital Farms pastures. Its meat is health-centric, with humanely raised black angus from 44 Farms for fresh empanadas and all natural Duroc pork from small family farms for its house-made chorizo.
The idea is to feel good about the flavor you’re enjoying. There may even be new ways to enjoy it.
“We have some stuff in the works for grab and go,” Odegard shares. “Stay tuned.”
Be on the lookout for a new music series, too. Siphon plans to dust off the old piano and invite local musicians come to play on Wednesday evenings or Saturday mornings.
Whether you’d like to lounge at the coffee shop or dart in for a grab and go, Odegard will be happy to see you. She views Siphon as a place to meet people from all walks of life.
“Cafes are an amazing kind of melting pot of your community,” she says. “I love to talk to people and learn about them. Serving coffee is just a platform, a bonus.”
Blacksmith doesn’t come from the Land Down Under, but it was certainly inspired by it. Owner David Buehrer modeled the coffee shop after Aussie culture, where every cafe has great coffee as well as seriously good eats.
Australian baristas are revered for their skills, general manager Antoine Franklin says.
“We wanted to translate that to Houston,” he says. Blacksmith puts baristas through a rigorous training program to insure they’re at the top of their game, and that all their drinks are winners.
Blacksmith baristas are well-versed in coffee and hospitable above all else, Franklin says. The idea is that a lack of pretension will make customers more relaxed and willing to step out of their comfort zones. In short, people are choosing straightforward over showy.
“We started off with more vanilla lattes, caramel lattes,” Franklin says. But regulars quickly grew to trust in the people behind the bar. “Now it’s more flat whites, cappuccinos, espressos.”
Blacksmith’s cold brew isn’t too shabby, though it’s a bit of a misnomer. In lieu of the traditional ice coffee method, Blacksmith brews hot, highly concentrated coffee over ice.
“Depending on the coffee, it can be richer, fruitier, chocolatier,” Franklin says. “It’s more intense all around.”
Blacksmith is owned by Greenway Coffee & Tea and sources its coffee from all over. “Colombia, Guatemala, Kenya, Ethiopia, Costa Rica,” Franklin says. There’s an emphasis on offering “coffees you can’t get in Houston.”
Savvy patrons can sip on these diverse drinks while enjoying the carefully curated menu from former Plonk Chef Erin Smith. Dishes feature Gulf Coast and Southeast Asian influences.
The Vietnamese steak & eggs are a Blacksmith tour de force, but the BLT has really got people talking. With a southern spin, the deli favorite is stuffed with pickled green tomatoes and mesclun greens.
Yogurt, an oft-overlooked breakfast staple, has a special place at Blacksmith. Smith makes the yogurt in-house and tops it with her very own vegan spice mix granola.
Biscuits, another side often sidelined, are crazy popular at Blacksmith. “We sell roughly 80 to 100 biscuits a day,” Franklin says.
They sell plenty of coffee too, of course, but occasionally a patron will get a complimentary cup. Blacksmith is in the old Mary’s building, the core of Montrose culture back in the day. Blacksmith’s team gutted the old building, went in and added large windows and a front and side patio. But the shop shows respect for bygone days with a massive Freddy Mercury poster.
Each time a Queen song comes on over the sound system, the first person in line gets some fresh ground coffee gratis. Now, that’s a coffee bonus.